The Upside of Plein Air Competition

14 Oct 2013

Cincinnati artist Monica Achberger participating in a plein air paint-out, Milford, Ohio, sponsored by the Ohio Plein Air Society in August 2010.
Cincinnati artist Monica Achberger participating in a
plein air paint-out, Milford, Ohio, sponsored by the
Ohio Plein Air Society in August 2010.
Looking ahead to the next several months, there are countless plein-air painting competitions coming up. We’ve all heard of the biggies--Plein Air Easton, the Carmel Art Festival, the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, and the Door County Plein Air Festival, just to name a few. Most of the big events are invitationals, but there are plenty of smaller paint-outs everywhere we turn. If you’ve never painted in one, I’d encourage you to give it a try. I’ve participated in quite a few local competitions, and I’ve always met the nicest people and had a great time. How about you?

Years ago, though, I would never have participated in anything called a competition. To me, that word conjured up images of me pitting myself against other artists. I had no interest in trying to prove to the world that I was somehow better than the plein air painters around me. Likewise, the prospect of having my work compared to others and coming up short was, well, obviously less than appealing!

But somewhere along the line, I started noticing how athletes talk about competition in a very positive way. For one thing, I've noticed that a lot of them don’t tie their self-perception to the outcome of a competitive event. In other words, they think that just because you lost, it doesn’t mean you’re a loser. Athletes perceive a competition as a test to see how well you can do a certain thing on a certain day. They don't internalize their performance, good or bad, as proof of how great they are as a person. I've also had several athletes tell me they savor chances to compete against more seasoned athletes because it pushes them to perform at their best, and you can learn a lot from them as well. To me, this viewpoint works just as well in art as it does in sport.

So now I love to participate in plein-air competitions. The camaraderie of it is a blast! I’ve never won an award for anything I’ve done, but I still feel like a winner.

What do you think about these outdoor painting competitions? Is competition good for us or a destructive force? And am I just letting myself off easy because I’m not competing at a professional level? Your thoughts?


Related Posts
+ Add a comment


Maywyn wrote
on 24 Feb 2011 4:19 AM

I belonged to an artist's guild that met regularly, weather permitting, to paint plein air. The camaraderie with artists, learning, sharing, admiring, and painting is a unique art experience. Inside a studio isn't the same as being outdoors.

The meditative like concentration that plein air painting creates would be lost in a competitve atmosphere or at least diminished. I think the competition is a fun idea, and adds a different feel to painting plein air. I'll try it if one is in the area.

HCAC_Beth wrote
on 24 Feb 2011 3:00 PM

I work at the Howard County Arts Council in Howard County, MD. Last summer we organized a plein air event and exhibit in Ellicott City, MD, a picturesque little town with a historic main street. The event was a great success.

Though it was partially juried and prizes and awards were given, we really focused on bringing the artists and the community together instead of high competition. We were so pleased that both the artists and the community who came to see them work really enjoyed themselves! The city was full of onlookers occasionally chatting with the artists, and there was definitely camaraderie between the artists. (Plus, it was the best-selling exhibit we've had in years!)

We instantly decided to continue the event and I've just posted the prospectus  for 2011 on our website: I hope some of your readers in our area enter the competition or just come out to paint!

on 26 Feb 2011 9:24 PM

Right on Jennifer. Keep painting. The competitions often get us out in the public and gerenate sales and commissions. Also the little artist get togethers at some competitions offer the chance to expand friendships. Bob hedden

mark beale wrote
on 28 Feb 2011 11:50 AM


This is a great topic for a post. Being an artist, you subject yourself to so much open criticism. It takes a thick skin to persevere and a strong belief in yourself. Painting in public can heighten the anxiety and fear of judgement. The irony of these "competitions" is that most artists are very supportive of each other because we know how many rejections we all face, along with our successes. I personally feel support from the artists around me and hope I can make others feel the same. Mark Beale.

KatPaints wrote
on 10 Mar 2011 5:31 PM

Hi, I just noticed that you are from Ohio. I live in Northern Ohio and most of the plein air groups are south. No problem - I found a plein air partner. How do you find out about paintouts in Ohio? The Ohio plein air group?? Is it published somewhere?

msjfrizzle wrote
on 20 Oct 2013 5:48 PM

I recently took part in my very first plein air competition, with no illusions about winning. I'm sure I was the least experienced painter in the group, although far from the youngest. My goal was to see if I could actually finish a reasonably respectable painting, and I did, and I, too feel like a winner! The public was invited to come out to a park, walk the nature trails, and interact with the artists as we worked. It was fun to talk with folks and answer their questions.

It was a terrific learning experience, and actually heightened my confidence, to my surprise. While I see many things I could change that would improve my watercolor painting, I decided to leave it as it was, as a record of that day. I already have ideas to improve my work next time.